The Battle of New Ross takes place in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland on June 5, 1798, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It is fought between the Irish Republican insurgents called the United Irishmen and British Crown forces composed of regular soldiers, militia and yeomanry. The attack on the town of New Ross on the River Barrow, is an attempt by the recently victorious rebels to break out of County Wexford across the River Barrow and to spread the rebellion into County Kilkenny and the outlying province of Munster.
On June 4, 1798, the rebels advance from their camp on Carrigbyrne Hill to Corbet Hill, just outside the town of New Ross. The battle, the bloodiest of the 1798 rebellion, begins at dawn on June 5 when the Crown garrison is attacked by a force of almost 10,000 rebels, massed in three columns outside the town. The attack has been expected since the fall of Wexford to the rebels on May 30 and the British garrison of 2,000 has prepared defences both outside and inside the town. Trenches are dug and manned by skirmishers on the approaches to the town while cannon are stationed facing all the rapidly falling approaches and narrow streets of the town to counter the expected mass charges by the rebels, who are mainly armed with pikes.
Bagenal Harvey, the United Irish Leader recently released from captivity following the rebel seizure of Wexford, attempts to negotiate surrender of New Ross but the rebel emissary Matt Furlong is shot down by Crown outposts while bearing a flag of truce. His death provokes a furious charge by an advance guard of 500 insurgents led by John Kelly who has instructions to seize the Three Bullet Gate and wait for reinforcements before pushing into the town. To aid their attack, the rebels first drive a herd of cattle through the gate.
Another rebel column attacks the Priory Gate but the third pulls back from the Market Gate intimidated by the strong defences. Seizing the opportunity, the garrison sends a force of cavalry out the Market Gate to attack and scatter the remaining two hostile columns from the flanks. However the rebel rump has not yet deployed and upon spotting the British manoeuvre, rally the front ranks who stand and break the cavalry charge with massed pikes.
The encouraged rebel army then sweeps past the Crown outposts and seizes the Three Bullet Gate causing the garrison and populace to flee in panic. Without pausing for reinforcement, the rebels break into the town attacking simultaneously down the steeply sloping streets but meet with strong resistance from well-prepared second lines of defence of the well armed soldiers. Despite horrific casualties the rebels manage to seize two-thirds of the town by using the cover of smoke from burning buildings and force the near withdrawal of all Crown forces from the town. However, the rebels’ limited supplies of gunpowder and ammunition force them to rely on the pike and blunts their offensive. The military manages to hold on and, following the arrival of reinforcements, launches a counterattack before noon which finally drives the exhausted rebels from the town.
No effort to pursue the withdrawing rebels is made but when the town has been secured, a massacre of prisoners, trapped rebels and civilians of both sympathies alike begins which continues for days. Hundreds are burned alive when rebel casualty stations are torched by victorious troops. More rebels are believed to have been killed in the aftermath of the battle than during the actual fighting. Reports of such atrocities brought by escaping rebels are believed to have influenced the retaliatory murder of over 100 loyalists in the flames of Scullabogue Barn.
Casualties in the Battle of New Ross are estimated at 2,800 to 3,000 Rebels and 200 Garrison dead. Most of the dead Rebels are thrown in the River Barrow or buried in a mass grave outside the town walls a few days after the Battle.
The remaining rebel army reorganises and forms a camp at Sliabh Coillte some five miles to the east but never attempts to attack the town again. They later attack General John Moore‘s invading column but are defeated at the Battle of Foulksmills on June 20, 1798.
(Pictured: The 1845 illustration “The Battle of Ross” by George Cruikshank)